From former gang member to local mentor: How one man is helping youth say ‘no’ to gang life

By Giulia Petroni
Medill Reports

Between West Cermak Road and West 32nd Street there’s an invisible line dividing the east and west sides of Little Village. Formerly known as South Lawndale, the neighborhood boasts one of the largest Mexican-American communities of the Midwest.

There, street gangs continue to represent a visible presence. Latin Kings to the east, Gangster Two-Six to the west. Each with its own internal structure and rules. Only one law reigns supreme: Hate whoever is on the other side.

Jorge Roque knows it well. He was born in El Paso, Texas, and moved to Chicago in the late 1970s.

“Little Village grew me up,” he said.

As soon as he finished eighth grade, he was initiated to the gang lifestyle and turned Two-Six.

“That’s me right there with my gang buddies. He’s dead, he hang himself, he’s in a run, he’s doing okay, he’s been shot many times,” said Roque looking at an old picture.

He now sits in his office at Urban Life Skills, a non-profit organization providing mentoring and advocacy to gang-involved youth in the community of Little Village.

As a child, Roque experienced episodes of domestic violence and suffered from the absence of a male role model. The streets became an outlet for his anger and the gang his alternative family. He witnessed friends shooting and being shot, until he started seeing that life for what it truly was.

“My mom kept dreaming me in a coffin,” Roque recalled. “One day she said ‘I am not gonna let the streets take you away from me’.” That is when he was sent to stay with an uncle in Kansas and gradually started discovering the power of faith.

When he came back to Chicago a year later, he got involved in a local church’s youth program. Mentored by an urban evangelist who had worked with gang members for decades, Roque travelled all over the country to tell his story and eventually became a mentor himself.

His anger turned into desire for a change. To this day, he’s been working with youth for almost 25 years. When it comes to helping them, east and west no longer matter. Roque has crossed the invisible line that has fractured the neighborhood for years.

Some of the youth Roque took under his wing and guided through the mentoring process later got involved in Urban Life Skills as volunteers or mentors. Paulino Verga was 23 years old when he met Roque. At that time, all he knew was the street life. Today he’s 31, works with children on probation and organizes sports activities as softball and boxing.

“I treated George badly for like two years, but he would still come. So I started listening,” said Vargas. “I was a troublemaker. He changed me.”

Today, Roque is one of the directors of the Urban Life Skills mentoring program. He believes that the “one-on-one” model, where each youth meets with a mentor once a week, is key to building deep, lasting relationships based on trust and accountability.

The program, closely partnered with the Cook County Juvenile Probation Department, is founded on both preventive and interventional approaches. A team of about 30 people provides different types of services, including job training, social activities, educational support, and sports therapy.

On Friday nights, Roque and his colleagues walk around Little Village from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., only to let youth know they’re out there, ready to help.

“Especially when a drive-by shooting happens, we try to pick up young men and say ‘Hey let’s get out of the neighborhood’,” Roque said. “‘C’mon let’s get a bite somewhere’, and take them where they can feel safe.”